When I found out that my local Jewish Community Center recently held a pro-Israel rally, I was disgusted. I really shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. I didn’t want to think that maybe we were like everyone else, like the JCC in my friend’s town an hour away that hosted a rally in support of Israel that included “Memorial prayers for fallen IDF soldiers.” I thought we were better than that. I thought, my Jewish community doesn’t endorse violence. That’s not what being Jewish means to me. Being Jewish means being critical and anti-authoritarian. But, then again, maybe I didn’t have a traditional Jewish upbringing.
I grew up in a secular Jewish home in a town with no synagogue. To this day, I still don’t know if my parents believe in G-d. Growing up, my brother and I would regularly have Shabbos dinner with our rabbi grandfather and Holocaust survivor grandmother. Every Passover, my whole family would get together to debate and have a way-too-long Seder because that’s what you do. And, in the summertime, I would go to JCC summer camp in the next town over. There, I would make all the Jewish friends I didn’t get to have during the school year, and no one would tell me that challah and matzo and good ole Jewish tuna sandwiches were weird.
I’ve had somewhat of a rough time being Jewish, having lived in many places that I can confidently call anti-Semitic, but I’ve always considered the JCC where I grew up to be a safe haven. Even when I decided I would not be bar/bat mitzvah’d and later realized that I never believed in G-d anyway, I always felt welcome at the Jewish Community Center.
Sure, there were indications that I was associated with Zionists when I was interning in the JCC’s front office this past January and my supervisors were discussing SodaStream and Scarlett Johansson, painting BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) activists as not having a clue as to what actually goes on in Israel, arguing instead that Israelis and Palestinians work side-by-side in the promised land. Also, apparently, racism doesn’t exist in Israel. Of course, they also tried to convince me I needed to go on a Birthright-Taglit trip and spoke very highly of their children’s trips.
But after that, I worked with the children in the Elementary Department for four months without a problem. I proudly wore my blue staff polo and carried a clipboard and enjoyed the company of 3-10 year olds who felt very comfortable asking very personal questions.
It was as a concerned Jew and employee of the JCC that I called their front desk the Friday after I found out about the rally, after consulting some of my local comrades, and asked who planned the event and how I could talk to them. The receptionist transferred me to the Jewish Federation line and I talked to their receptionist. The receptionist said that their board of directors had planned the rally and I asked if my organization could meet with them. They asked what this was for and who my organization is. I replied that we’re a collection of like-minded individuals who would like to know more about the rally. I was then patched in to the voicemail of the person I needed, and I left a voicemail.
At this point, I was not actually sure how connected the Jewish Federation was to the Jewish Community Center. Yes, the rally had been held on the JCC campus, but was this action 100% endorsed by the JCC?
Monday afternoon, I decided to call again. This time, I spoke to the person who I left the voicemail for. She asked what my name was and what department I worked for. She said that we did not have an elementary department. I thought it was very odd that this person would deny this true fact right off the bat. I said, “Well, that’s what we call ourselves. I work in vacation camp, the after school program, and I’m a substitute in the pre-school.” Also, it says Elementary Department on my paychecks, but I didn’t mention that.
She asked why I needed to meet with the Jewish Federation and I expressed that I was very concerned about the recent pro-Israel rally. She said it was a solidarity event. I asked what the difference was. She asked why I was concerned. I said I did not want to associate myself with Zionists. She asked why, and I replied that Zionism is a racist institution. This was apparently a mistake, because what followed was a rant from the other end of the telephone that seemed to last forever, but my phone says we were only on the phone for 17 minutes total.
I was unfortunately not taking notes during this phone call because I didn’t think it would be such a hilarious, Zionist goldmine, with the person on the other side of the phone nearly shrieking their justifications at me. At one point, I was told that Israel is the only line of defense the United States has against the tyranny of the “terrorist” states in the Middle East. Apparently, if Israel falls, so do we (we, meaning, The United States), because “terrorists” hate “Western values.” I asked what Western values are, and they are, according to this person: freedom, democracy, education (education of women, especially), building hospitals – “Oh?” I asked, “Building hospitals? Then how do you justify Israel blowing up Palestinian hospitals?” Of course, this person had all the answers; Hamas is allegedly hiding missiles in hospitals. I asked how they can justify Israel killing an unfathomable number of civilians, and they said that “terrorists” are using women and children as “human shields.” I asked how she could lie like that and she told me to face reality; in war, there are always going to be civilian casualties.
At various points in the conversation, the person on the phone told me that she feels really sad for me because I do not have a home in the world. At some point, she told me that Palestine does not exist, that it is not an actual place, even though there are Palestinians. I said that, actually, my family was in Palestine before the creation of the state, and my grandfather was born in Jerusalem, Palestine. She told me that I will have nowhere to go if Israel does not exist and there is ever another Holocaust. I was absolutely appalled and told her that that was incredibly inappropriate.
After about 15 minutes of this back and forth, I said, “We’re clearly both getting very emotional. I’m just going to assume that you’re not willing to meet with me?” We scheduled a meeting for that Thursday, with me very ready to turn in my staff polo, quit my job, and sever ties with the JCC forever.
The morning of my meeting, I received a voicemail from the person I was meeting with, informing me that we would be meeting with two more people, including my former boss, in addition to her. I felt lucky that I was already planning on going to the meeting with a comrade from the local branch of the ISO (International Socialist Organization) who was well-versed in BDS and Palestinian solidarity; otherwise, I would have felt ganged up on.
As it turns out, three against two is still unfair. We arrived at the meeting and started out with innocent small talk before my boss arrived, but it quickly turned tense when he was many minutes late and everyone at the table had already picked their sides, quietly waiting for their turn to engage. He finally arrived, and what followed is a blur.
When I described how these three middle-aged adults talked to my comrade and me to a friend afterwards, he told me he was sorry I had to go through something so traumatic. “Traumatic” is a good word. These people are easily twice my age and were not afraid of making me feel the decades between us. They insisted that I do my research (How much more research do I have to do to conclude that Israel is an apartheid state?); they told my comrade, who is not much older than me, which is an important detail, that, in an Arab country, she would not be allowed to pursue her PhD (When she told them that that assertion was racist and xenophobic, they said that it was simply the truth.); and they told me I know nothing of Israel, Palestine, or the conflict. This last one really got to me; I have family in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, and I’ve been following this conflict for over twenty years, through no conscious choice of my own. When you’re part Israeli, you don’t get the luxury of not picking a side here. I really hope my boss, who I know for a fact is a Russian Jew, really appreciates the irony of being an Ashkenazi Jew with no business in the land of Israel, telling me that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Oh yes, and they also called me anti-Semitic. Now, I may not be proud of the Israeli state, and I may have a tattoo, but I will always be proud of being Jewish. Jews have come a long way in this world and I am proud that we have survived, despite it all. But, to me, Jewishness is not a static, infallible thing that one should never question. On the contrary, Jewishness means questioning the status quo, which often means questioning other Jews, and living a life that does the least amount of harm. Just as I fight against the militarization of the police in the United States, so too do I oppose state-sanctioned Israeli terrorism against the innocent people of Palestine. Zionism may be carried out in the name of Judaism, but the Jewish thing to do, for me, will always be to oppose Zionism, just as it is our imperative to oppose all other racialized violence and injustice worldwide. I don’t think being a decent person is anti-Semitic.
Of course, there are definitely anti-Semitic ways to oppose Zionism, and they will always be wrong. There is a lot of anti-Semitism in the contemporary anti-Zionist movement, and it makes me uncomfortable, to say the least.
As our meeting drew to a close, I gripped the blue polo sitting in my lap. If I wasn’t prepared to quit my job already, this meeting certainly convinced me. I don’t remember exactly what I said as I handed my boss the polo and told him I had to resign, but I remember losing my composure as I expressed that I felt a profound sense of loss, that I felt my local Jewish community was abandoning me and its self-professed ideals of peace, and that, by severing ties with the JCC, I would be cut off from a community I had relied on for over fifteen years. I don’t think the peers I left behind at the JCC will ever understand how very betrayed I feel by the community, and I don’t think my white, Christian friends will ever understand how much I am losing by taking such a political stand. In this time, it is very important to keep my anti-Zionist Jewish friends close. We have to build and maintain community, because we’re definitely a minority.
Moving forward, I encourage all of my friends, Jewish or gentile, to live in a more Jewish way. That is, always question authority. Remember that laws can be unjust. Remember that your silence does not do any good. And remember that Zionism is not Jewish. Zionism is an abomination.